Tag Archives: school culture

Some Reflections on Being a Student Again

Photo by Chris Wormhoudt on Unsplash

One of the many reasons I haven’t had much time to blog lately is the fact that I went back to grad school in September. I’m working on my doctorate at Northeastern University. Working full time and going to school has meant all the writing I’ve had time to do has mostly been for school, but it’s been a fantastic learning experience so far. I have learned so much from the reading and writing I have done. I can’t even compare my experience with earning my master’s degree to my experience working on my doctorate, and I’m only sorry I wasted so much tuition money and time on the master’s. Here I’m showing my ignorance, but I didn’t realize one could go right into a doctoral degree program with a bachelor’s degree.

My dissertation in practice is an action research investigation on grading and assessment practices. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, it’s perhaps not a surprise, as assessment has been an interest of mine for a long time. I have come to the conclusion that grading impedes not only motivation but also learning, as students tend to focus on the grade at the expense of the learning. It’s true that some students don’t find grades to be a motivator, and those students tend to view them more as a stick than a carrot. Whether grades motivate students or not, however, they do encourage students to focus on the wrong thing, and even students who truly want to learn find grades demotivating. Students have told me they are afraid to take risks. They select “easier” options. They try to figure out what the teacher wants to hear and parrot it back rather than think for themselves. All of this is anecdotal—I’ve seen it many times over the years; however, I see no reason why students would be dishonest about their feelings regarding grades.

Going back to school has put me in the same position as my students. The anxiety I have experienced over my grades has been difficult to manage at times. Of course I want to learn, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to please my professors. Even though I’m actually studying the effects of grading and know exactly what is happening to me, I find myself unable to focus only on the learning. I want to earn good grades too badly. It’s utterly ironic on a few levels. I’m actually doing very well, for one thing, and for another, the research is quite clear that grades are subjective, demotivating, and even contribute to poor performance (Cvencek, et. al., 2018; Klapp, 2015; Brackett, et. al., 2013; and Bloxham, et. al., 2016). My hunch is it has to do with mindset. I noticed my students relaxed quite a bit once I instituted a liberal revision policy.

One of my classmates mentioned that a professor I will have for a summer course is a hard grader. So naturally, I’ve already started worrying about a class I won’t start for nearly a month. It made me reflect a little bit on reputation. I don’t think I have a reputation for being a hard grader. One person told me my reputation was my expectations are “reasonable,” and I’ll take it. My students this year seemed to be happy in my classes, and my course surveys revealed they felt cared a for and that the choice and agency they had was important for their growth. I relaxed a lot on my own grading practices as a result of the research I have done and because of my own experiences as a student. I truly do not understand the need for a graduate program to use grades.

We know what to do about grading and assessment. I think one reason I was not accepted to another graduate program to which I applied is that my research does not examine a gap in the research. On the contrary, there is plenty of research on grading and assessment, and going all the way back to the 1800s, the research has been fairly clear. And yet, we keep reporting learning by using grades. So even though there is no gap in the research, it’s clear to me that classroom practices haven’t changed as a result of the research, and that’s what I’m interested in: change. We need to do right by our students and fix this problem that has plagued education for far too long.

References

Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson, J., & Price, M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: Exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 466-481. doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1024607

Brackett, M. A., Floman, J. L., Ashton-James, C., Cherkasskiy, L., & Salovey, P. (2013). The influence of teacher emotion on grading practices: A preliminary look at the evaluation of student writing. Teachers and Teaching, 19(6), 634-646. doi:10.1080/13540602.2013.827453

Cvencek, D., Fryberg, S. A., Covarrubias, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2018). Self‐concepts, self‐esteem, and academic achievement of minority and majority North American elementary school children. Child Development, 89(4), 1099-1109. doi:10.1111/cdev.12802

Klapp, A. (2015). Does grading affect educational attainment? A longitudinal study. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(3), 302-323. doi:10.1080/0969594X.2014.988121

An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 2

An Ethic of ExcellenceThe second chapter of Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence discusses the importance of school culture in student learning. If you have ever worked in a school with a negative school culture, you will find yourself nodding as you read and highlighting several sentences in every paragraph. Reading this chapter, I reflected on the school cultures in several schools where I have worked or attended as a student, and Berger is absolutely right that culture is the bedrock of a successful school. If the school culture does not celebrate excellence and is not a safe place for students to learn (not just safe from physical or mental abuse or bullying but also a safe place for taking risks), then it is nearly impossible for individual teachers and students to hope they can be successful. Several movies about excellent teachers show us examples of teachers who successfully fight against a negative school culture to help their students achieve, but the fact that these teachers have movies about them should tell us how hard it is. If it were easy to fight a negative school culture, we wouldn’t have movies about the teachers who did it.

It did not take long for me to understand that administration is key to establishing a positive school culture. When I was a student teacher, I didn’t really see what, exactly, administrators did all day. It seemed to me that all the important work in schools was done by teachers and students, and administrators mattered very little. I said as much in a journal I wrote as part of an assignment in my English Education program. We had a doctoral student who graded some of our work in that program. She was a veteran English teacher. All she said in response to my journal was “I would be interested to know how you feel about this in a few years.” She didn’t tell me I was naive, but that’s exactly what I was. I kept her comment in mind, and later, when I realized what she meant, I truly felt like an idiot. Unless an administration is behind the culture and is a positive influence on the culture, it’s just not going to happen. Berger begins this chapter by describing visiting a school where the principal clearly didn’t want him there and clearly didn’t want to be there himself. He was marking time until retirement. He refused to meet Berger when Berger visited the school. There are a few teachers who want to hear what Berger has to say because they want change. But, as Berger says about the school, “Conditions are so bad that I hardly know what to say” (33). I actually want to ask Berger about this school when he visits us in preplanning precisely because I have a hunch they are still struggling, if they are still around, because their leadership was unwilling to establish a positive school culture. Their leadership didn’t even want to try. Unless the leadership is willing to make changes, nothing will happen, no matter how earnest the faculty and students are. It is too much of a losing battle to fight. If they were able to make some positive changes, then they likely did it after the principal left the school.

Let me tell you about the cultures of a few schools with which I am familiar.

The first school is a small elementary school. Funding has been slashed to the point that the school has no librarian, but parents volunteer to staff the library. Student artwork adorns the walls. Creativity is celebrated. Students are given the opportunity to engage in a variety of arts: music, visual art, drama, and dance. Sixth graders are paired with kindergarten buddies, much as Berger describes his own school doing. The buddies meet regularly, and the older children serve as mentors and friends. The principal knows students. Every student is accountable. It’s a small school, and students are not lost in the crowd.

The second school is a rural combined middle and high school. Students tend to come from backgrounds that do not celebrate academic achievement. Gangs are problem. Yes, even in this rural school. But the principal largely ignores the major behavior issues in the school and prefers to stick his head in the sand because he’s not sure how to change it, or maybe because he isn’t willing to try. Students threaten violence against teachers, and the students might be suspended, but then they are back, and the teachers and students have that issue hanging in the air. Students lock a teacher out of her classroom, and the principal thinks it’s funny. One of the administrators’ own children leaves a classroom without permission, through the window. Thankfully, the school has one level. An administrator tries to convince a teacher to change a student’s failing average from a 40% to a 70% so he can graduate. Otherwise, she says, he will wind up in jail. He had retaken three courses in that same subject that year, and he needed to pass all three of them. He passed two.

The third school has students are fairly good, for the most part, and they understand the importance of a good education, or at least good grades, but the kind of excellence celebrated at the school is not respect for the excellent work done but rather the grade or AP score achieved. Unfortunately, there is a bully at the helm of the school. Certain teachers and staff are regular targets of verbal and mental abuse. Unfortunately, there is little recourse because the bully is in a leadership position. A great deal of attention is paid to appearances, but the school has a foundation built on sand, and there is little attention paid to the most important aspects of building a positive school community.

The fourth school has collegial, hardworking, intelligent leadership with great ideas. The students are polite and hardworking. They take pride in their work. The school is not only invested in building a strong school culture, but in establishing itself as a positive member of the neighborhood and city community at large. The expectation in the school community is that people help each other out. Doors are held open. People help out with heavy loads. People greet each other warmly. Achievement is celebrated.

It is just about impossible to overstate the importance of establishing a school community that supports all of its constituents. Berger describes how positive peer pressure is a part of his school community, and I have seen positive peer pressure be a force for good in my own experience, as well. When students expect excellence out of each other and hold each other to high standards, you’d be amazed what can happen in a school; as Berger notes, it is a powerful motivator.

Berger says that “Every effective school I’ve seen has a strong sense of community,” even if their resources and settings differ wildly (41). And community only happens when all the stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, parents—have a voice and take pride in being a part of what is happening at the school. Berger describes building a foundation for community, starting with the building. His description of an inner city school he visited is compelling enough to quote in its entirety:

The building was surrounded by trash: fast-food boxes, plastic bags, food, broken bottles, wet newspapers, shopping carts, and needles from drug users. People sat on the curb in front of the school drinking from paper bags; the liquor store was across the street. The building had the architectural look of a prison—massive exterior walls of water-stained concrete with few windows. The front entrance was a battered metal door covered with graffiti; if you banged loudly enough they would buzz you in for inspection by a security guard. The boy’s [sic] bathrooms had stalls with no doors, broken toilet seats, and graffiti on the walls and metal mirrors.

This was an elementary school. (45)

I have to say I nearly jumped out of my seat when I read that last sentence. Can you imagine? As Berger says, “If politicians or business leaders were compelled to send their own children to this school, I would guess we’d see changes in the building fairly soon” (45). He says that “Architects point out that it’s easy to see what is valued in a culture by looking at which structures are built with expense and care” (46). The sad thing about the description of the inner-city school that Berger visited is that I wasn’t shocked that a school like that existed. I was only surprised it was an elementary school. As Berger says, if we are expecting students to go to dilapidated schools that look more like prisons, it is no wonder the schools are underperforming.

I enjoyed reading this chapter a great deal, and I agreed with what Berger says. Building a strong school community is not easy and takes time, but it is important work. It can be done anywhere, even in places with few resources, but it has to start with leadership that cares enough to support the work. And frankly, it isn’t the kind of work that is being supported by a society driven by test data as the only marker of success.